Homeowners Fire Restoration Basics 101

Dan Chavez

Almost daily, you hear the sound of sirens screaming in the air as fire trucks speed down the street, they may be heading to commercial and residential properties affected by fire, water, and smoke damage. The aftermath always leaves property owners with many more questions than answers and a mounting list of tasks soon to be added to their a I ready busy lives.
You may have heard the restoration horror stories from friends, neighbors, and relatives regarding hassles with their insurance company, lingering odors, shoddy work by their contractors, and “knock-down, drag-out” battles with unpleasant adjusters.
Your first step in avoiding the pitfalls and problems that inherently arise during the fire restoration process will be to understand what help is available through your insurance policy’s coverage. Next, you will need to identify who the stakeholders are as the insurance process begins. What are their individual goals as they do their job? Then distinguish your potential allies from your potential foes. Possessing this knowledge will be your best defense in navigating the challenges that lay ahead.
Conclusion: It’s your fundamental acceptance that when you file a damage claim with your insurance company, they are not required to do what is in your best interest. Their only obligation is to follow their guidelines within the policy contract. Which means their concern, motivation, and actions, may not be in step with yours! Your insurance company will do what is in the best interest of their company and their stockholders, even if it’s detrimental to you.
Help Yourself Tip: Realize that you have the most to lose if you allow everyone to “just do their job”, and the repairs don’t meet your expectations for quality or completeness.

”We Had A Fire”
Experiencing a fire can have a vast array of meanings. Some folks may have the misfortune of their household electrical wiring arcing and smoldering, without ever sustaining much of a flame, but causing light smoke damage and leaving noticeable smoke odor throughout their residence. Another homeowner may have their house hit by a lightning strike and lose 40%of their home due to uncontrolled flames and fire damage. Two entirely different scenarios, each with a different degree of sustained damage to their homes yet both homeowners will say; “we had a fire.”
Having been in the restoration and cleaning business for the majority of my life, experience has taught me that each fire situation is unique, with many variables that will affect and determine the outcome of the overall damage. Therefore, we develop a customized recovery plan for each fire restoration project we are involved with, plans are based on the particular needs of that job. Fire restoration should not be addressed with a “one size fits all” approach.
I have comprised a short list of fire restoration basics to help you understand a logical approach to fire restoration. Many times, these very basic tips are overlooked by so-called restoration professionals. Here are some tips that can help you identify and avoid potential problems that you may encounter during your restoration project. These tips will help you understand concepts and problem-solving solutions that most adjusters and restoration contractors don’t grasp.

Fire Restoration Tips

  1. Smoke rises and moves toward cool oxygen as it enters a room
  2. Lingering odors are likely to be a result of remaining soot residues
  3. Higher temperatures and humidity will cause odors to be more noticeable
  4. Cleaning away smoke residue (soot), is a first step in deodorizing
  5. Porous materials will absorb and hold odor
  6. Fires that burn at higher temperatures will increase the aggressiveness of the smoke odor and make deodorizing tougher
  7. Smoke residues can permanently stain porous surfaces
  8. Sealing or”covering up” offensive odors without cleaning may allow odors to resurface later
  9. Sooty or dirty surfaces should not be sealed or painted without cleaning. As paints and sealers will recommend “clean, dry surfaces” in their directions
  10. Soot-filled attic spaces; walls and ceiling cavities can be a source of lingering “phantom” smoke odors if not addressed during restoration.

The Basics of Handling Fire Damage Insurance Claims
After a lifetime of working restoration projects as a technician, then as a crew leader, and eventually as a supervisor, I feel like I have a wide array of experiences with hundreds of adjusters and thousands of claims. These Survival I Basics are at the core of some of the issues that I see repeated during the restoration process.

  1. Be your own advocate
    Realize that you have the most to lose if the repairs are not full and complete. Your insurance company’s representatives inherently may make you feel guilty for spending your policy dollars, as they are looking to repair or replace in the most cost-effective way possible, even if it is to our detriment.

a. Understand the entire scope of damage and the recommended remedies; do they make sense to you?
b. It’s important to know the parameters of your policy coverage and your options for repair or replacement.
c. Try to determine time frames for repair, and how it will impact you.
d. Your insurance company’s costs should be secondary to your time and your hassles.
e. From the first day to the last day, ask questions and consider the answers. Don’t be afraid to ask; “Why?”
f. Never let a contractor begin work until they have answered two simple questions; “How soon can you start?How long will it take you to finish the repairs?”
Key Point: Be clear, be firm and stand strong!2.Many insurance companies have a “preferred vendor” system for their repairs.
However the concept is sold to you; the bottom line is the vendor programs are designed to save the insurance company money. They will promote it as easier for the policyholder; they take care of everything with the “one call does it all”. What they don’t tell you is that once you sign on, you have very little control. You don’t control who comes into your house to do the repairs. Many times, the policyholder will be left out of the fine details of the repairs, time frames, and thefinal cost of repairs.

2. Many insurance companies have a “preferred vendor” system for their repairs.
However the concept is sold to you; the bottom line is the vendor programs are designed to save the insurance company money. They will promote it as easier for the policyholder; they take care of everything with the “one call does it all”. What they don’t tell you is that once you sign on, you have very little control. You don’t control who comes into your house to do the repairs. Many times, the policyholder will be left out of the fine details of the repairs, time frames, and the final cost of repairs.

a. Ask yourself if the vendors were picked because the quality of their work, or were they hand-picked because they are a savings tool for your insurance company?
b. Will their”preferred” vendors have your best interest in mind or theirs?
c. From a vendor’s perspective, will you be the client or will the i nsu ranee company be their client, and you just a job?
d. Whether it was explained to you or not, it is your choice who does the repairs in your home.
e. Your insurance company’s effort to save money shouldn’t be your burden, your hassle, and a lasting detriment for you if repairs are not full and complete.
Key Point: Do not assume that your i nsu ranee company’s” preferred” vendor wou Id be your preference as a contractor. Their vetting process will be different that yours. Sometimes thriftiness can be a good thing, but as the policyholder, that should be your call!

3. The curse of the third-party claims management
Some insurance companies have outsourced their claims adjusting process to independent claims management companies. Outsourcing keeps their staffing costs down, and also distances them from negative feelings from the adjusting side of their business. They won’t be the one telling you no, they will say it’s out of their hands. Third party claims companies make their living by cost cutting; unfortunately, the quality of the work from repair vendors usually goes down as well.

a. Fundamentally, you will be better served by your “company” adjuster; they have more to lose if you are unsatisfied.
b. Third-party claims personal will adjust “over the phone”, without a site visit, a complete understanding of your loss may complicate your claim.
c. Restoration companies, contractors, sub-contractors that get “squeezed” in the cost-cutting efforts, many times they have to choose between making a profit or doing a quality job for you.
d. Despite their reluctance, your “company” phone adjuster or manager will have the ability to override decisions made by the third-party claims handler if you are unhappy, they just don’t tell you!
e. Strict enforcement of their payment guidelines may reduce the scope or quality of your restoration service. Help yourself Tip: If you feel like you are getting the run around from a third-party claims company, go to your insurance agent first, and then ask for your company’s claims manager to report your problem! Be clear, be firm and stand strong!

4. Understand that your homeowner’s policy is a legal and binding contract. Like all legal contracts, they are designed to leave little wiggle room.

a. Insurance companies are not doing you a favor when they “cover” your loss. If it’s written into their policy/contract; they are obligated to provide coverage and make payment.
b. Despite the “feel good” marketing your insurance company employs, they will follow their policy to the letter. Words and phrases like; “just because”, “to be fair”, “nice guy”, etc. will not be in your contract.
c. Whether storing or borrowing property of others, they will not cover damaged items that are not your personal property.
d. You have two individual policies within a typical homeowner’s policy heading, one extends coverage for your structure and the other covers your personal property, each with separate Ii m its.
e. If there are questions of policy, coverage limitations, exclusions, Etc., ask your representative to “email” you written documentation. If their information is correct, they shouldn’t have an issue sending the documentation.
Remember: Friendly smiles, handshakes, and feel good jingles are the sales side of your insurance company. The claims side of the business will have different goals, and they will live by the letter of the contract!

5. Working with an adjuster.
An adjuster’s job is to get the file closed, and make you happy, if possible. They will sometimes negotiate between you the policyholder and their boss to find a final settlement. Like a car salesman that would prefer you pay more for less, they would prefer you settle for less than more.

a. Adjusters are not the company’s concierges; their chief goal is not to make sure you have everything you need, ensure that your family is comfortable and happy for the duration of your claim.
b. Be yourself when working with an adjuster, being adversarial or trying to make friends very seldom helps either way.
c. If your adjuster notices that your house is in disrepair or has other obvious liabilities, you can expect to be non-renewed or hit with a rate increase letter later; insurance companies are always looking to limit their liabilities.
d. Some adjusters may have preconceived notions when deciding how much they are willing to spend based on your neighborhood, the value of your house, or condition of your home.

Remember: Adjusters are just people, so some will be friendly, and others will not. Some will be confrontational and others will not. Be yourself and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, if you don’t, no one else will!

6. If your home suffered significant damage and were unlivable, ask about policy provisions like “additional living expenses” (ALE).
This part of their policy pays for extra costs related to you being out of your home. If you are going to be out of your home for an extended period, pay close attention to what is available, ask what you are entitled to as a part of your policy coverage.

a. Ask about additional payments to cover hotel, apartment or house rental.
b. This coverage will reimburse you for the extra food expenses above and beyond your average weekly or monthly spending.
c. Ask about mileage gasoline cost above and beyond typical usage
Key Point: Commercial- “My adjuster will explain everything I am entitled to and in great detail, then follow up to make sure I have everything I need.” It may work that way in TV commercials, but in the real world, you usually only get what you ask for, or demand. Ask detailed questions and be the advocate for yourself and your family.

7. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
It’s unfortunate, and it’s not the way the process is supposed to work, but if you are left unhappy and say nothing … nothing will change. It may be counter to your personality, but it’s the vocal minority that will get what they seek.

a. If you are willing to settle for less than you are entitled to, they will gladly accommodate you. Speak up when you are unsure or dissatisfied.
b. Be clear if you have a complaint or complaints.
c. Keep a list of questions and document who, when and what was said.
d. Get names, numbers, ema i I addresses, etc. of the people you come in contact with throughout the process.
e. If something doesn’t make sense, seems wrong, creates a bigger hassle for you, etc., don’t mince words, explain the problem and demand a solution.
Help yourself Tip: If you have a problem, be pleasant, but be clear, and be prepared to be strong!

Final observation: If you’ve had a fire, it can be a troubling and traumatic experience, even on a small scale. Don’t expect your insurance company’s personnel to be compassionate, supportive or even reasonable! The insurance claims process can be challenging with their best people and best intentions, and it can be downright devastating without their willingness to help you restore your home. The only person you can count on to understand the problem, work hard to find solutions and to guarantee your happiness, in the end … is you! Be your own advocate!